A review of the Guy Bourdin exhibition at Somerset House

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The fashion and fetish image maker extraordinaire Guy Bourdin currently has his biggest ever UK exhibition on show at London’s Somerset House. Guy Bourdin: Image Maker has been curated by academic and curator Alistair O’Neill with Shelly Verthime and the exhibition sees the French photographer’s career carefully laid out for the visitor to see his evolution from amateur painter, protégé of Man Ray to fashion photographer of iconic grandeur of the second half of the twentieth century told through his compulsive creation of images of glamorous women in disturbing scenarios.

Bourdin was known as a photographer doused in a controversial history due to his obsession with fetishising his female subjects in a subtle but almost violent way. This exhibition shows over 100 original prints of some of his most groundbreaking photographs as well as his paintings, polaroid’s, drawings and films. The incomparable glamour of the 1970s woman was catalysed by Bourdin but it was in his genius that he was able to turn this desirable beauty into something twisted and perverse but simultaneously make these images into objects of consumerism.

This exhibition mainly shows his work for Vogue and advertising campaigns for the likes of shoe designer Charles Jourdan, however what was truly fascinating about Bourdin was his ability to create utterly surreal photographs which strayed a million miles away from anything ever invented within fashion photography before.

Often compared to his contemporary Helmut Newton who also reveled in sexualising his models into his own personal fantasy, Bourdin’s images are far more difficult to decipher. The exhibition introduces us to the fact that Bourdin was a protégé of Man Ray which becomes more and more understandable as the exhibition progresses. The similarities between Ray and Bourdin certainly exist within the fetishisation of certain body parts and strange crops of the body.

Most notably Man Ray’s influence can be seen in the second room of the exhibition where his series of photographs of a pair of mannequins legs were positioned in a variety of British spaces to emulate a body-less woman, eerily existing as if utterly normal. This room is introduced to the visitor through its context where Bourdin rented a Cadillac one summer and took his wife, son and mannequin legs for a road trip around Britain in 1979 under a commission for the shoe designer Charles Jourdan. The result is bizarre, surreal, almost boring and impossible to really understand and can be just as easily viewed as objects of fine art as they are of commerce. The selection of photographs introduces Bourdin’s recurring obsession with feet that becomes impossible to ignore as the exhibition continues.

When walking around the lower ground of Somerset House in its windowless space the suffocating feel to Bourdin’s photographs become increasingly sensory. A common point made about the photographers work is within how nightmarish his work is (or maybe dreamlike?) His photographs often exist in timeless, situational-less spaces. Mundane bedrooms, highways, empty dull streets, all spaces without any particular context or another population. The notion that the viewer is always just about to be cropped out of being able to fully see what is going on is a never-ending agitation to Bourdin’s images. This is only exaggerated by Bourdin’s exceptional talent at using such sumptuous varieties of brash colours in his work, exaggerating notions of fantasy.

Then there is the aspect of voyeurism to his work, you feel as if you’re living in his head, spying on his fantasies that make no sense to anybody but himself. But it is in that inability to understand what you are not seeing which makes his work all the more obsessive for both Bourdin and the viewer. The models that he photographs are always devoid of any decipherable personality or individualism, all like an army of prototype Bourdin women with their archetypal 70s glamour, flat chests and white skin.

Besides from the finished images which are on show, a fantastic exploration of Bourdin’s obsessive planning and execution are shown to us through sketches and graphic layout exaggerating the feeling of existing within his perverted and egomaniacal mind.

One of the best examples of this was his most probably unpublished advert for Charles Jourdan that shows a figure completely wrapped in silver plastic with string securing the metallic material to the body while the figure holds three shoes. The backdrop is set against a wet plastic setting which looks as if the photographer had mounted it lazily himself. The photograph looks almost timeless, as if it had been found at the depths of Tumblr just the other day but it was created in 1968. Even now the photograph seems totally surreal, an understanding that the model is probably experiencing a kind of suffocation and the tactile clamminess of the plastic combined with the eradication of a personality creates a sinister image of human sexuality which Bourdin has somehow turned round to become an advert for shoes.

Maybe this is what is so fascinating about Bourdin, seeing such an abundance of his photographs makes you realise how timeless these fetishes are. We live in a society where we experience sexuality as such a modern phenomenon to be treated with caution and shock, but in reality human being’s desires have never changed or become more extreme. Some individuals simply have had the confidence to be able to express their inner most desires without fear of judgment and excel in visualising them as they please.

The work on show on its most basic level explores fashion. The archetypal characteristic of the 1970s women are all exemplified by Bourdin; pink blushed cheeks, platformed feet and permed hair now stand in our memories of how we categories that notion of glamour, fashion and womanhood for that decade. That ability to exemplify a kind of beauty in his images was quite obviously his appeal to big fashion employers, but the longer you spend walking around the exhibition the more surreal it feels that these publishers and fashion house owners would put such trust into such bizarre and controversial images.

Bourdin’s influence on photographers since also rings out loud and far through this exhibition, David LaChapelle, Mert and Marcus, Ellen von Unwerth or Pierre et Gilles would have been nothing if his photographs hadn’t displayed such an unforgiving exploration of glamour, excess and sexuality in the context of fashion.

In many ways his vision of women fits quite perfectly to that of the 60s and 70s as there is certainly something classically misogynistic about them. Although women rights were going through pivotal moments at that time, to actually be a woman then was drastically different to how it is now, sexism was a domesticated aspect to Western life. The women in Bourdin’s photographs are objects rather than humans, playthings for him to materialize into his fantasies.  It would be irresponsible to not acknowledge that these images can be experienced with an anxiety over their political correctness and power dynamic.

This exhibition is fascinating for more than a few reasons. Whether you’re particularly interested in fashion, feminism, photography or sexuality it provokes thought across all boards of thought. More than anything however, the longer you spend thinking about Bourdin the more fascinating it seems that Bourdin could create such twisted images which were accepted and fed to such a colossal audience at the time.

The exhibition will run until the 15th of March is open daily from 10-6pm and open until 9pm on Thursdays.

You can buy tickets here

Somerset House

Embankment Gallery

Strand, London WC2R 1LA

 

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